Yippee-Ki Yay or Nay: What Makes a Christmas Movie

Published: Dec 20, 2021  |  

Writer and actress, co-founder, COO and creative director of CountryLine

As an actor, you sometimes notice your career moving in certain patterns. I started out  playing a lot of roles where I died (I clearly make a convincing corpse). I then went on to do  a round of medical dramas, including the British TV holy trifecta of Casualty, Holby City, and Doctors. And now, I suddenly find myself doing a run of Christmas movies. Which is great. I love Christmas. I mean, I really love Christmas. And what’s Christmas if it doesn’t have a host of cheesy movies on demand for our festive viewing? 

The best thing about Christmas movies is that there’s something for everyone. The term  “Christmas movie” covers a lot of bases. You want tradition with a message? It’s A  Wonderful Life or Miracle On 34th Street (the original and the remake are both excellent).  You watch them and feel warm and fuzzy. There’s a sentimental ending that makes you  want to be a better person and spend more time with the ones you love; you can’t go  wrong. 

If it’s comedy you’re after, then look no further than the slapstick that is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. We’ve all seen it—probably more than once. It may be 32 years old, but it still holds its own. You want romance and great music? White Christmas is a must. Let’s face it: the costumes alone scream “Happy Holidays!” 

And it’s not just the classics from the 1940s that get rolled out year after year. It wouldn’t be Christmas without reruns of Elf or The Muppet Christmas Carol. Everyone has their favourites. These are the movies that when you’re channel surfing or scrolling the Flix and they pop up you immediately stop and say, “Oh, let’s watch this tonight,” even though you’ve all seen them multiple times before. 

It’s the tradition that keeps us coming back for more year after year. In the same way that putting Aunt Mavis’s slightly-worn fairy on the top of the Christmas tree is a must, so is tuning in to watch Scrooged or The Santa Claus on a winter’s evening in December. I think we can all agree if it’s got Bing Crosby, snow, or a couple of Santa hats, we’re on to a winner.  

But, as I was sitting down last night to watch another movie about an inn in Vermont, a city  girl displaced, and a cute widower…It got me thinking: what actually makes a Christmas  movie a Christmas movie? 

You all know what I’m about to say…Yes: Die Hard. Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? It is. And Die Hard is a great Christmas movie. I’m aware that some people will fight me over this, but hear me out. What makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie is Christmas, right? (That’s a sentence with a lot of the C words…)

I truly believe that what makes a movie specifically a Christmas movie is this: If you take  away the fact that it’s Christmas, does the plot still work? 

For example, take Love Actually—arguably one of the best Christmas movies made in the past 20 years. Could it have been set at any other time of the year other than Christmas? Absolutely not. We need the nativity play, the “carol singers” for Mark to use to declare his undying love, the office Christmas party for all sorts of plot points and let’s not forget the moment that Alan Rickman gives poor Emma Thompson a Christmas present of a CD instead of the necklace she thought she was getting. It simply has to be Christmastime for the film to work. (Please note, I didn’t put a spoiler alert before this paragraph. I apologise, but if you’re reading this and have never seen the movie, then where have you been since 2003??) 

Another example is The Holiday, a delightful Christmas movie…except for one thing. It could have been set at any time of the year. Cameron Diaz could have easily broken up with her fiancé in June as she did in December, so I would argue it’s not really a Christmas movie, just one by default. It’s nicer that it’s set in a snowy English countryside, but it technically doesn’t need to be. 

Another one that falls into the debate alongside Die Hard a lot of the time is Gremlins.  But this has to be a Christmas movie, as the Mogwai is a Christmas present and it wouldn’t  really work during summer and longer daylight evenings, when there wouldn’t be enough darkness for them to wreak havoc on the town. Plus, we’d miss out on Kate’s classic monologue about why she hates Christmas, which, whilst not exactly pivotal to the plot, is one of the things that makes this movie a cult classic. 

So back to Die Hard. With this theory, it simply has to be a Christmas movie as John McClain is travelling to see his wife for the festive season in the hope of reconciling, and the main storyline centres around the office Christmas party at Nakatomi plaza. It simply wouldn’t work at any other time of the year. 

It’s a story about good fighting evil, with the underdog saving the day. There’s Christmas  trees and Santa hats and a feel-good ending. The soundtrack is stacked with festive classics  such as “Let It Snow”—and it even snows at the end! In LA! Sure, there’s machine guns and explosions but there’s also a pretty good Christmas message in there too. It may not be the warm and fuzzy Christmas movie that most think of, but it ticks all the boxes for me. 

So, if you’d like my advice: this Christmas, if you want to have the ultimate Christmas movie  experience, watch Love Actually followed by Die Hard. You’ll cover all the festive bases plus  you’ll be able to finally see revenge served to Alan Rickman for what he did to Emma  Thompson. And if that doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, I don’t know what will.

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